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Anthony Daniels

Anthony DanielsAnthony's first role as an actor was as a 65-year-old in She Stoops to Conquer. But his next role as a fourteen year old in Forget-me-not Lane brought him the immediate offer to joining the National Theatre of Great Britain at The Young Vic. He toured abroad with them as well as acting in their London home in many popular productions. It was whilst a member of that company, playing in Stoppard's Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, that he got the call to meet George Lucas about a science fiction movie being filmed in England.

Daniels was one of hundreds called to meet the director. Given the difficulties of the proposed costume, it would require considerable abilities from an actor to create a character through and in spite of it. So particularly, Lucas was interested in Daniels' mime skills. Daniels on the other hand wasn't interested at all. Having once demanded his money back on seeing 2001 - A Space Odyssey, it was clear that he had never been attracted by the world of sci-fi. He refused the interview, not wishing to waste Lucas's time, or indeed his own.

Coerced by his agent, Daniels did meet the director. But it was in fact a conceptual painting by Ralph McQuarrie hanging behind the director that actually gained Daniels interest. Eventually, having read the incomprehensible script but liking the golden robot, he asked if he could play the role. The next day he was covered in plaster as the first step in creating the now globally recognised character. Six months later the costume was almost ready and filming began.

Although the Star Wars saga has formed a major part of Daniels' career, he has interspersed those movies with a variety of television and stage appearances. These range from situation comedies such as Square Deal and Three Up Two Down to more serious dramas such as Prime Suspect and Priestly's Dangerous Corner.

- Reprinted with permission from The Official Anthony Daniels Web Site

G5: C3PO and R2D2 must go down in history as two of the most famous robots, yet back in 1977 when Star Wars was first released, robots were nowhere near as advanced as the current generation of robots -- how did you approach the role when you were first given it?

Initially I had refused even to meet George Lucas to discuss his low budget sci-fi project and my possible participation.

But back in the ‘70s robots were not particularly featured in movies, or at least in my mind, and I’d never been thrilled by them. Until I recently met the creator of Robbie, Robert Kinoshita, and could study a facsimile of that remarkable creation, I was never very interested by the character. Daleks scared me and the Cybermen didn’t. I wasn’t really engaged with any robotic image as far as I remember.

Looking back, it may have been their lack of human qualities, apart from the bipedal-sweaty-actor nature of the silver humanoid Cybermen. But I couldn’t relate to them or feel empathy. They were mean-machines but I didn’t connect. Except for Hewy and Dewy from Silent Running. They would become the prototypes for Artoo.

George wanted a rougher, American sound but he forgot to mention it. So I came up with a posher version of me. Now of course, most movie robots seem to talk rather elegantly. Threepio is very flattered!

And then I saw the original design for See-Threepio created by Ralph McQuarrie.

In his painting the character had a unique forlorn quality. He, there were no obvious female appendages, he seemed to be waiting patiently to relate to me – to anyone – like a spaniel. Anthropomorphism was obviously flying in all directions as I gazed at the picture.

Then I read George’s script. It had lots of references to Threepio’s place in that part of the galaxy; sometimes a loyal companion and respected friend, but always under no illusion that he was a machine, an object.

Some human characters in the script, the disrespectful Solo for one, made it clear that there was no personal connectivity. But Luke had an empathy that would ultimately lead the audience to believe in Threepio’s near-human qualities, creating a sense of a warm, human affection towards the metallic character.

It took six months to create the complicated costume. I had all that time to consider each new draft of the script. Whilst Georges’s words were clear about his role as a mechanical aid, I began to realise that Threepio should have a full set of human emotions and capabilities. More or less.

He certainly had the intelligence to observe inter-human relations and to wonder where he personally stood in the chain of being. I felt that he knew there was something intangible that, however great his intellectual skills, would always prevent him from making that step into full humanity. With the knowledge that there was indeed a higher state of being, his tragedy would be forever to remain a robot. A thing. That thought might make him feel rather forlorn.

So that was one aspect of the role I was trying to create. And of course, in an ironic reaction, Threepio sometimes sees himself as superior to the humans that he serves. But that’s only natural.

The relationship with Artoo was there in the script from the moment we find them together on the Tantive IV. A clever piece of odd coupling.

And I began to feel that Threepio had no sense of humour. The indignities that the plot flung at him would be funny because he would never see the humorous side of it. With humans, dignity and respect are important. For Threepio too. I felt that for a machine, whose specialist subject was protocol and etiquette, to be placed in a world where neither had any apparent use or relevance was a masterstroke by George. It allowed Threepio always to be nervously at odds with his situation. An excellent dramatic device.

G5: What did you find most interesting about playing a robot? The worst aspect?

Possibly the word is ‘difficult’ rather than “interesting.” The suit wasn’t even ready for the first day’s shooting so I had to make the best of it which was pretty bad, at least from the inside. It took me years to get over my reverential attitude to the beautiful looking but unworkable costume before I began to attack it with a blade so that I could function in it. I sliced up the hands and a leg. I still feel a bit guilty about that but hey, it was my work environment. My office.

It’s easy to see in documentary footage how I change as we go into a take. I need to keep my energy for the shots, so I tend to be very slow or still whilst we’re not actually shooting.

I can walk normally in the suit but it doesn’t look very interesting. Once in character, I keep the weight of the rather top-heavy costume as much in the middle of me as possible, so that my centre of gravity doesn’t shift from side to side. I wanted Threepio to be very upright and correct in his posture. As a human, I slump a bit. It also would give him a slightly Japanese quality, which I felt would go with his extreme courtesy and sense of correctness.

I was fascinated by hearing from Robert Kinoshita that his one criticism of Robbie, his creation, was that the actor shifted his weight from side to side in a rather threatening forward motion. He would have preferred if his robot had moved like Threepio. It was great to talk to someone who understood the sort of thoughts that I’d put into my role. I mean, you can’t go on about problems or it distracts from the performance. It’s the result that matters. But at least Robert thought I’d got something right.

Some of the acting problems I already guessed before we started filming. The mime training and mask work I did at drama college gave me the skills I needed. I had to get some kind of emotion through the solid plastic face that covered my own. In fact, with the face completely immobile, it’s the rest of my body that has to achieve the effect. The old rule that emotion starts from the centre of the body served me quite well, I think.

But I did have to work out how to sense what my, to me, invisible limbs were doing in a scene. Particularly, having no peripheral vision was a torment. I could see forever in front but was totally blinkered at the edges. There is a moment that always makes me laugh when I watch the first movie. I’ve just got out of the oil bath and am vaguely drying myself with a small towel. I didn’t realise that, whilst I was talking to Luke, I was rubbing a certain part of my anatomy rather suggestively. Possibly something I wouldn’t have done if I could have felt the effect through the suit.

I just met Asimo...I wanted to relate immediately over drinks but it hadn’t seen Star Wars yet and didn’t know who I was. But it did ask for Artoo’s number.

But a lot of personal planning meant that I was generally looking in the right place at the right time. I learned to rehearse enough that my body retained a physical memory of what it was meant to be doing. It was a drag if another actor changed their action during the actual shot. Ewoks were good at doing that. Or bad. But in general the requirements of the camera crew keep most actors on their marks. Of course I could never see mine, so I would count my steps and toe up to sand bag and usually get there without falling over it. They gave me a set of gold marks on Episode III.

Relating to Artoo Detoo was odd. I very quickly learned that it was nothing like what was in the script. I was acting alone with a silent box that never responded or spoke. It was all in my mind. I would write out Artoo’s lines so that I had something in my head to hang on to. Kenny Baker was sometimes inside the two-legged unit if it needed to wobble, other than in close up. But apart from the odd head turn, that was all he could do. Usually the unit was remote-controlled with often-dodgy radio signals, or yanked on a piano wire that snapped. Or just parked there. And in later films, blue screen effects meant it wasn’t there at all.

But I made myself relate to the blue and white unit as I rehearsed without my costume. It became second nature in the end. But it was quite hard to time some of my lines, without the responses in between. In many ways I felt I was playing both characters.

One of the things I loved about A New Hope was seeing Artoo after Ben Burtt had added the sounds. Suddenly the silent, rather simple box had a personality. Ben had given it character out of electronic beeps. More importantly he’d mixed them with his own human voice. That was the really clever bit. He added a human element to an inanimate object. It makes you connect.

But maybe I could relate to Artoo because that’s all I had. Even if it was only a machine. Perhaps that helped me to remember that I was one too. It wouldn’t have worked if I had suddenly remembered my personal humanity in the middle of a take. Hopefully I only let enough of me through to give Threepio some human qualities besides his looks.

I had total admiration from the crew on day one of shooting. They’d never seen a character like this gold man. After a very quick while they completely took Threepio for granted as the machine he is. A complement in a way but for the human inside it was rather odd - to have all your humanity taken away by colleagues, too busy to remember you’re there.

I think that sense of being taken for granted has stayed with me. I find myself talking to computers, cars and blinking movement sensors. I don’t think I’m the only one to do it. Wouldn’t you speak to a Toyota saloon car that hadn’t just left you to die when you’d got lost in a Moroccan desert? I think it was OK to say “thanks” and give it a pat.

On a visit to the Lego factory in Denmark, I was fascinated by the witty-looking robots that stamped out multi-coloured blocks of plastic, and the mobile units that collected the finished pieces and delivered fresh supplies to their counterparts. They worked in simple harmony and joyful collaboration. As we left, I was shocked when my host turned out the lights, leaving them to trundle their way in the dark.

At the same time we’ve all thumped a machine. Threepio does. He knows that machines can be frustrating. He also knows how frustrating it is to be one.

I suppose the best aspect of seeing the edited movies is when something has worked and the effort seems worthwhile. Or entrancing some child, or adult, by suddenly dropping into Threepio’s voice. Their reaction to hearing his mechanical tones coming out of my human face is well worth the effort of six movies

It took all of those six months to find a voice that was human enough to be a conversational, truly interactive companion, without the clichéd voice of a Dalek or Prof Hawkins prototype. I talk in a slightly higher pitch, from the top of my chest and at the back of my palate to get a slightly tinny feel. And I add some rather abnormal emphases to his lines. George wanted a rougher, American sound but he forgot to mention it. So I came up with a posher version of me. Now of course, most movie robots seem to talk rather elegantly. Threepio is very flattered!

G5: Have you adjusted your attitudes toward C3PO to reflect changes in robotics technology over the 25 years of Star Wars?

No. A machine is a machine is a machine. His world exists in another space-time. And he is he, even though eventually a newer model will come along and his parts will be recycled for scrap or, as he always feared, he’ll be melted down.

I was always amazed that audiences believe he’s a real robot. Perhaps it’s a complement to my acting ability because his kind of robot is a long way off being available at your local Wal-Mart.

G5: C3PO's most endearing feature has to be his emotional love-hate attachment to R2D2. Do you foresee machines being able to feel emotions like this?

It’s a dangerous road to travel. And it has been by Hollywood quite a few times already. Remember West World? And was it the movie, Saturn 13, which had a wildly oversexed silver droid trying to ravage the girl? An emotional droid certainly has dramatic potential. Just hope it understands the word ‘No!’

We can only hope that some of the conscience of a maker will filter through the codes into the qualities of their creation. Remember, a robot’s personality mirrors the maker’s input. For the time being, robots work on a set of algorithms that must have a human base somewhere. Even with research into neural networking, I imagine a robot’s reactions have got to start with zeros and ones on someone’s keyboard at some point in their creation.

Anyway, where exactly do the emotions sit? A CPU? A motherboard? An electrical spark? Philosophers have debated the location for centuries and we still don’t know.

I was hugely thrilled to meet Cynthia Breazeal at MIT. She became a professor of robotics because she just fell for Threepio all those years ago. She’s young, very pretty and so bright. And there I am in her laboratory, sort of playing around with her and her brainy team. They’re all Star Wars fans and they have heaps of interesting projects. Particularly “Leonardo.”

It’s a research tool, a Yoda-like animatronic that they’re teaching to hear, see, feel and interpret. It was amazing how quickly Leo and I bonded. We’re having lunch next week. If I ever thought robots were just those stick figures that squirt cars together, I had a crash course in what the future really holds.

I suppose we look for emotion in our fellow humans and in our pet animals. We’re wary of people who appear to be emotionless. Emotion is a bonding thing that we seem to need. Perhaps we automatically look for it in machines too. And in the future it will be there. But it’s an area not without it’s intellectual dangers.

G5: C3PO also has a certain cowardly streak -- perhaps like a survival mechanism -- but the attachment he has for R2 seems to signify a higher level of emotional awareness.

We filmed a scene in Episode II where Padme asked the wiry Threepio if he was happy. He replied that he was not un-happy but it was very difficult to be like that. Like what? Naked! If she’d pardon the expression. It was a very soulful, quiet scene where the droid explained that his maker, Anakin had left before he’d had time to put on the final coverings. It had been hard for Threepio all those years. To be naked. It simply wasn’t protocol. With hindsight, it gave a clue to his rather self-conscious behaviour in the Saga. The scene ended with Padme finding some suitable pieces and dressing the ecstatic droid. A sweet, gentle insight. George decided there wasn’t time for it in the final cut.

But Threepio does have a strong emotional awareness. Like humans, he would fight to the death not to die. That’s not a cowardly streak. It’s self-preservation. For the most part though, his preservation instincts are aimed at the comfort and survival of others – humans or machines. An extension of the Asimovian Laws

G5: On a similar note, the human crew also have strong emotional ties to the robots, risking their lives for their benefit on several occasions. Do you see people becoming very attached to robots and robotic friends in the near future?

Yes. It’s very likely. Imagine a totally non-critical, self-sacrificing, intelligent, talented and adoring companion. Sounds great! OK, it would drive me nuts. But maybe I could get used to it. Though if you saw the Stepford Wives you might not want to go there.

Most children start off closely attached to dolls or even bits of blanket. And the TV is a close companion for millions of adults. Not everyone has the choice to make human friends. Who’s to criticise if, after trying the field of mature relationships with all the problems that entails, folks find contentment and comfort in the arms – well companionship, at least – of robots that mirror the better human qualities and leave out most of the bad ones.

I just met Asimo, Honda’s quite extraordinary freestanding humanoid. Amazing. But it was quite a disturbing encounter because of its near-human qualities. I wanted to relate immediately over drinks but it hadn’t seen Star Wars yet and didn’t know who I was. But it did ask for Artoo’s number.

Some people find human relations difficult. Perhaps human-cyborg relationships are a lot better than nothing.

G5: Where do you think robotics research is heading? Where would you like to see it move?

I think it is a wider field than most people imagine. Certainly me.

Of course I’d like to have a robot do the household chores (robota is Czech for forced labour or drudgery)(I don’t speak Czech but I do know drudgery). But I don’t believe that’s where robotic R&D is best spent. Robot vacuum cleaners are already trundling around sitting rooms and bumping into the furniture (like me after a good night out). I don’t think they’ll catch on. I think housework is too complicated, in an irritatingly bitty sort of way, for any machine to do it. So unless you’ve got air-con and live in a padded cell, keep dusting.

What I really would like is a robot that could read and understand instruction manuals for gizmos I’ll never really know how to use. I want a plug-and-play mate.

But on a larger scale, we’re all familiar with the industrial production welders. And we’ve grown rather used to moon-explorers and the information they gather. But perhaps the mechanics of a sexy machine sidetracks us from the important stuff. Do we get distracted by the, go anywhere, prancing legs of a spider-bot or the adaptable treads of a tank-tracked machine?

‘Zoe,’ at Carnegie Mellon University is a rather weedy-looking robot, engineered to explore planet surfaces on four bicycle wheels. But it’s the thought that counts, and Zoe thinks a lot. Getting around unusual terrain is one thing but what you do when you’re there is why you’re there in the first place. And not just in space. There are still some no-go areas on this planet due to temperature, pressure or contamination. Places no man can go.

But it’s Zoe’s intelligence that matters, not her, his, its good looks. With microchip capacity growing exponentially on a very steep gradient, the sort of computing power that will be available halfway through this century is quite beyond my programming. Zoe and friends will just go on getting smarter. It will be very exciting. Or Scary. Depends who’s in charge.

With Arnie in charge of California, life is almost mirroring art. A robot-policeman sounds like a neat idea but even human cops have been accused of misusing clubs and guns and Tazers. Imagine being arrested by a malfunctioning droid-guard who doesn’t understand, “I’m sorry, officer. I’ll come quietly. No please don’t aim that at m…”

Which, if you were lucky, would lead to a dose of microsurgery. Imagine the robot surgeon gliding forward with a microbot-filled syringe, telling you, in the cloned voice of your favourite celebrity from ER, that you wont feel a thing. The medi-droid in Empire Strikes Back wasn’t exactly cutting edge but it was a good idea. And it’s coming soon to a hospital near you. And though I try to watch my cholesterol levels, if some nano-bot was reaming out my arteries whilst I shave, I’d probably be quite grateful, if a little apprehensive.

If there is always going to be war on this planet, let the machines do it amongst themselves. My favourite TV programme is Robot Wars where heavyweight robots bash each other. Sometimes they don’t make it, but the humans survive to shake hands. Threepio is, of course, appalled at my viewing habits.

Many entertainment producers would love to have mechanical artists that could survive fire and flood on the hour, without complaining to their agents. And we already love to watch them. But I know I prefer to watch a live Mickey in the parade rather than a robotic Mr Lincoln, however clever his programming. (I know he’s animatronic but I’m making a point.)

Disney is for the younger market but there’s no doubt that robots are being primed to help the elderly, particularly in Japan. As their population grows older, the choice seems to be to use machines to do the caring.

I wonder if that’s preferable to importing workers from other countries. One day, will cheap labour be more expensive than clever machines? In the 1800’s there used to be riots over the invention of the simplest weaving machines. Luddites smashed them up to preserve their jobs.

I think I’ve been lucky that the Star Wars Saga happened when it did. Or I might have been out of work all these years!

G5: Star Wars presents technology in a rather grounded fashion not seen in modern movies. Do you see much proof of the apocalyptic future Hollywood often portrays robotics/AI leading us too? Why do you think attitudes towards technology have changed over the years?

Technology has always fascinated us. Once it was the Wheel and Archimedes’ Screw. Now technology visibly surrounds us, even filling the air between us. We are well aware of it and we want more. We like to master it but, for some of us, it’s a bit of a race to keep up. (I do love my new iPod. It’s easy to use and doesn’t argue about my choice of music.)

Hollywood loves apocalypses. Hollywood would be nothing without drama. Conflict is the stuff of movies. The more conflict, the more action. And there have been some pretty violent man-versus-machine offerings, perhaps giving robots a bad name.

But there are some more thoughtful ideas from Hollywood. Think of AI or Centennial Man. Perhaps they are less successful as entertainment but they present some worrying thoughts, for those who might want to think. It’s part of the human condition to question and dream. Remember - enquiring minds want to know! Including the artist and the scientist. It’s fascinating how they feed each other. Artists imagine. Scientists strive to make it reality. It’s a step progression. The scare factor is that we’re creating and altering worlds without really knowing whether there’s an ‘undo’ button. There’s excitement and panic around GM foods, stem-cell research and cloning but is anyone really worried about research into silicon-based life forms?

Perhaps the greatest goal in robotics is true ‘autonomy.’ Where a robot can think and survive without further human input.

Speaking as a human - I’m not filming today - that makes me nervous.

Submitted: 03/12/2004

Article content copyright © James Matthews, 2004.
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